Review: Pretty Little Liars 1×1-1×3

Not bad, but God I feel old now

Pretty Little Liars

In the US: Tuesdays, 8/7c, ABC Family

Sometimes, it’s really possible for TV to make you feel old. I remember watching an episode of Quantum Leap back in the early 90s while I was at university and thinking to myself, “Ah, isn’t that sweet? Donald Bellisario and Deborah Pratt have put their little four-year-old daughter Troian into an episode.”

Troian Bellisario is now 25 and one of the stars of Pretty Little Liars. In fact, of all the stars she’s the oldest.

God damn it. I’m officially old.

Pretty Little Liars is an attempt to somehow meld Gossip Girl with Vampire Diaries, with just a hint of Desperate Housewives. Based on the book series of the same name – which ironically was only developed in the first place when an attempt to create a TV show from the initial idea floundered – it features four pretty high school girls who were once the best of friends. That all ended a year ago, when the fifth member and leader of their group, Ali, disappeared one summer. A year later, one of the friends returns from a stay in Europe to find the group has fallen apart.

Yet something’s going to bring them together. Could it be Ali? If it is, why won’t she reveal herself and why does she keep sending them anonymous text messages? Worse still, is she going to give away all their secrets?

Rosewood is a perfect little town. So quiet and pristine, you’d never guess it holds so many secrets. Some of the ugliest ones belong to the prettiest girls in town — Aria, Spencer, Hanna and Emily, four estranged friends whose darkest secrets are about to unravel.

One year ago, Alison, the Queen Bee of their group, disappeared and the girls swore they’d never tell what really happened that night. They thought their secrets would bond them together, but just the opposite is true. Then again, who’s to say what the truth is in Rosewood. It seems everyone in town is lying about something.

Now, as the mystery surrounding Alison’s disappearance resurfaces, the girls begin getting messages from “A,” saying – and threatening – things only Alison would know. But it couldn’t be Alison. Could it? Whoever it is, they seem to know all the girls’ secrets, and seem to be watching their every move. The girls are friends again, but will they be there for each other if their dark secrets come to light?

Is it any good?
It’s surprisingly not bad, and even more surprisingly, given the OTT books, it’s quite restrained and intelligent. In fact, the worst thing about it is its stupidly over-ironic title sequence and title theme, which don’t really match the show’s tone at all.

The comparison with Gossip Girl is obvious: a book series about beautiful High School girls that plays on rich girls’ friendships, cliques, bitchiness, relationships with boys, an omniscient text messager, etc, and which features a deep and terrible secret that has caused the heroine to spend time away from home, before she returns at the start of the series.

The Vampire Diaries parallels are briefer, with the heroine Aria’s interest in literature being used to define her deepness in the exact same way that Elena’s similar interest in The Vampire Diaries doesn’t – but the relationships in Pretty Little Liars are a lot closer to Vampire Diaries’ than Gossip Girl‘s, with some degree of subtlety, emotion and realism involved.

And Desperate Housewives? Well, spoiler alert, we have a murder that needs to be solved and everything’s just a little bit bonkers.

But parallels aside, Pretty Little Liars does actually manage to carve its own little niche, without wandering into too much of the same territory. Aria (Lucy Hale from Bionic Woman/Privileged) is quite a thoughtful and interesting heroine and the rest of her clique, although by no means entirely likable, do at least have more dimensions to them than most similar shows.

Aria’s trying to have an elicit relationship with her English teacher and is still having to deal with her own personal secret – her dad (Chad Lowe – brother of Rob) has been having an affair that her mother (Holly Marie Combs from Charmed) doesn’t know about.

Hanna (Ashley Benson) has weight issues, likes to shoplift and a boyfriend who might not like her very much.

Spencer (Troian Bellisario) has the hots for her favoured sister’s fiancé – which won’t be the first time.

Emily (Shay Mitchell) is discovering she’s probably bisexual and is considering having a relationship with her new neighbour – just as she might have done with Ali.

There’s also a sub-plot about the Jenna, a blind girl who has also just returned to school and whose blinding the girls might know something about.

So lots going on then, which involves a whole deal of lying, hence the title of the show.

Now, the show is at least semi-daft. Rosewood, which is in the middle of nowhere and seems to only have one restaurant, has an unnaturally large number of designer clothes stores and everyone seems to be able to afford those clothes on little more than university lecturer salaries at best. In true US teen show tradition, barely anyone is of High School age, most being 20+ with Bellisario’s 25 years meaning I thought for a while she was someone’s mom in the pilot – you may think me daft for that, but at 36, Holly Marie Combs isn’t old enough to be the mother of a daughter in her late teens and certainly doesn’t look it either.

Unlike Gossip Girl, the men are all poorly defined and will pretty much shag anything that offers itself to them, no matter how inappropriate, Aria’s English teacher being a prime example, but Emily’s boyfriend, Aria’s dad and Spencer’s sister’s fiancé being other examples, too. None of them have distinct personalities, except in relationship to the women, and what there is is pretty wet and pathetic/evil (delete as appropriate).

Ali – who may or may not still be alive – keeps sending everyone omniscient Gossip Girl-esque text messages to let them know she knows their secrets: cue numerous scenes of everyone getting the same text at the same time then standing around looking shocked for unnaturally long pauses.

The police officer who’s investigating Ali’s disappearance – really, doesn’t he have anything better to do? – has moved in with Hanna because he’s having a relationship with her mother and keeps pulling them out of class for no good reason to interview them. He also wanders around her house with just a towel on – inappropriate much?

But as daftness goes, it’s relatively low key, certainly compared to Gossip Girl‘s and The Vampire Diaries, and if you look at the plots for the books, you’ll see just how restrained the producers have been.

As it is, the show is a frothy bit of fun that still manages to touch on some useful issues, has some brains behind it and has girls as the lead characters without exploiting. Now that can’t be bad can it?

Carusometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: Should probably last a season, maybe two, but at the rate they’re burning through the plots of the books, they’re going to have revealed all within about five episodes, so they’re going to need some new plots soon.  


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

    View all posts